Sunday Stories: Dust to Dust

Aunt Lou's Boarding House (from road) - NARA -...

For years after they gave me those electric shock treatments up at the mental hospital ashes came out both of my ears.

That never happened, I told Aunt Marguerite who was only eight years my senior, half giggling to myself that her stories were the same as when she was in her twenties before she met Wanda.

After that  my aunt’s chaotic life changed. She finally belonged somewhere and meeting Wanda was undeniably the single best thing that ever happened to her since Chunky Marlow left her at the altar. Actually he never even made it to the altar. Aunt Marguerite immediately began suffering nervous breakdowns that escalated in both frequency and duration until Wanda.

Known as the Larsen Ladies, they lived over forty years together in a benign neighborhood of charming bungalows originally built as army homes. Everyone outside of relations assumed  them sisters until Wanda died of a heart attack and Aunt Marguerite came right unglued at the funeral. Nobody would even care about it today but back then, it was as good as having an unwed pregnancy. All I know for sure and will attest to is their love for me,  giving me safe haven from the havoc of drunken parents arguing yet again or handing me a birthday gift when no one else appeared to even remember my birth.  Looking out for my beloved remaining auntie was the least I could do out of respect for both of them.

How would you know? You weren’t even born yet when I was poisoned by all those rotten smells in that drafty old boarding house. 

Marguerite’s words peeled me back from the layers of memories to her room where dust motes danced in the air, brought to life by her expressive hands to play in the sun for a few seconds more. Her eyes were focused on me so sharply I remembered her telling me once “I am the hawk, I see everything.” Her hands rested on the book she was reading when I entered. I read the spine as it lay on her lap “The Last of the Crazy People – Timothy Findley.”  I smiled and looked at my aunt’s outfit, her heather grey skirt her favorite garment in winter months.

Aunt Marguerite wore dresses all her life, always looked nicely put together even if she was only going to fetch some turnip for one of her aromatic soups and stews. Even now where no one but myself and the nurses would see her, her hair was bobby-pinned tidily back above each ear, her earrings matched her bright red sweater and her knee-high stockings bared their tops below the hem of her wool skirt.

You were the only one affected by those bad smells, remember? I said, pouring some water in glass and taking a long cool swallow.  Water is the only thing people can’t fool with, I thought, it always tastes so good. I held a glass out to my aunt who shook her head no at me.

The rest were a hardened bunch, that’s why it didn’t affect anybody else in that boarding house, she said, her eyes daring me again.

Listen to the planes overhead, they go all the time now, she continued, calmer, I can hear them crashing right through the sound barrier.

I thought of all the things I could say. It wouldn’t matter what I said really. Wanda was gone. My Aunt would never be the same again. Death changes you. It leaves you double bound. You don’t want to go on without those you love. And yet you know you must. Somehow.

I can hear the planes too, I said softly, though her care home was a good two-hour drive from any airport. When she smiled up at me her eyes went from being small and fearful to become huge orbs of violet love just for me.

Aunt Marguerite, I’ll see you next week, okay?

I said this while kissing the top of her soft white hair, the fragrance of roses wafting up to me.

Don’t let me detain you, she said, her nose already back in her book.

(c) JANNI 2012

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